Building from a "Seed Plan"

By Duo Dickinson, Originally Published in Houseplans.com

a seed plan by Duo Dickinson

Almost everyone aspires to have a home of their own. But possession is only part of it. We want our homes to reflect our values, we want to be proud our our “Home Sweet Home". But when most homes are mass-produced or built for someone else the window for personal expression shrinks to choosing paint colors. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Custom designs rendered by architects have been viewed as being too expensive for most families hoping to build a home. Architects are also often perceived as more interested in their agenda than yours.

But it doesn’t have to be that way either.

It’s time to rethink how design can be delivered to homeowners - it’s time to create a design service that is affordable and to create homes that fit their owner and their site even when the home starts with a stock house plan.

It’s time for “Seed Plans" - where architects offer existing home designs that embody their skill, and offer up a service to make those designs fit specific homeowners and landscapes - the best of both worlds.

Homes are the most public/most private thing we own. Our houses are as basic as the food we eat or the clothes on our back. However the risks and rewards of home ownership are so fraught with exquisitely personal value judgments that many of us end up questioning whether we are gourmands or gluttons, fashionistas or dirt bags.

Despite its essential place in everyone’s lives, there never seems to be an objective professional with expertise and no vested interest in the value of your home. A builder wants you to build, an agent wants you to buy or sell, and every kitchen and bath purveyor wants to make a sale. In the absence of professionals who offer advice, magazines, websites and your mother-in-law offer up hackneyed chestnuts: “curb appeal”, “location, location, location”, and “add a deck”.

The obvious solution is to hire the only professional licensed specifically to be expert, and objective in all things building - an architect. Unfortunately after 35 years in the profession, and being licensed for 30 of those years I can warrant that my fellow architects have a mixed record of utility when it comes to residential design. The commonly held, and too often accurate opinion is that too many architects have precious little investment in listening to homeowners or understanding how builders build.

The net result is that, at best, licensed architects touch perhaps 5% of the single family residences built in the U.S.. The twin worlds of stock-plan flooded subdivisions and elitist architect designed homes are failing economically. Both of these perspectives are tone-deaf to their context, client and value, and served only the bottom line of developers on one hand or the glossy pages of house porn magazines on the other. Well those builders and those magazines have shrunk to often unrecognizable states. Both of these paradigms are running on empty, blind to their irrelevance to so many people aching to create their own home.

This was not always the case. For more than a century ethical and engaged architects have known that home design touches families in ways no other building project can. The direct appreciation of your patron in every thought you have as a designer is imperative to creating homes for engaged clients. Unfortunately the sad truth is for many architects, tainted by the prejudicial professional programming, house design projects are fill-in for “real” work during hard times or training wheels for young architects starting out. For architects who dream of recognition as the fashion designers of built form, residential practice means an icky marriage to clients, and endless hours perfecting that marriage that often never get paid for.

The contrarian idea that good design for middle-class housing consumers versus mega-wealthy patrons is a noble profession is not new. In the 19th century “pattern books” by designers like Samuel Reed and Andrew Jackson Downing broke the mold of often owner-built and designed one-off homes for the middle class. These books marketed the idea of gracious living in picturesque designs. Before his death in 1852, Downing noted: "A good house will lead to a good civilization."

In the 20th century, there have been architects who knew that houses were fertile ground for expression and meaningful work. In 1914 a group of architects in Minnesota created the Architects Small House Service Bureau.



In the first three decades of the twentieth century this group created safe and sound housing in the form of 10,000 built homes in response to the shortage of middle class housing in the U.S. following World War 1. By 1919, the bureau had offices throughout the U.S. and received the endorsement of both the American Institute of Architects and the Department of Commerce. The hundreds of plans and multiple publications they generated were a part of a changing environment that saw Sears sell 100,000s of kit homes during those years, and new rail lines open up the suburbs to new fields of freestanding single family residences. Sadly the Great Depression ended the efforts of these conscientious architects to provide objectively better designs for more people.

In the desire to provide hope for America’s housing consumers in the midst of the Depression, LIFE Magazine created a forum to show that the art of architecture could have usefulness to the average housing consumer. In 1938, for a series of real clients seeking to build on real sites with real budgets, the magazine pitted “traditional” architects against “modern”. The voting by readers narrowed the choice down to a mano-a-mano grudge match between Frank Lloyd Wright who fought the Depression with a whole line of “Usonian” homes (derived from “U.S. Homes”) and the venerable Royal Barry Wills, whose lightly “Colonial” design won hands down – validating what LIFE called his “businesslike type of architect” practice – an architectural practice that survives to this day.



Just as Wright was eager to spread good design in architecture to anyone willing to pay for his Usonian designs, in the mid 1970’s Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon and Gerald Allen inspired an entire generation of their fellow architects to think about homes as a collaborative process with homeowners, using the notion that existing culture informs design as much as architectural genius.

That seemingly obvious input meant that the architectural profession began to reform its pre-existing prejudices, ultimately encouraging luminary architects like Robert A.M. Stern Dennis Wedlick, Sara Susanka, Jeremiah Eck to create home designs that could be adapted to specific sites and clients. The Congress Of Residential Architecture (CORA – www.corarchitecture.org) was created about 10 years ago amidst the biggest residential building boom in history. This group is ecumenical – designers, builders, developers can all be members – and the AIA was inspired to create its own dedicated group of licensed professionals – the Custom Residential Architects Network.

Now that construction activity has reduced to levels unseen for a decade, and the architectural profession is the hardest hit of all the licensed professions, (with its degree being declared last month by Yahoo News to be “the worst” of all profession degrees), the profession of architecture is looking at its role in our culture – just like it did in the 1938 LIFE Magazine’s mud-wrestling match between the “art” and “business” sides of residential design for architects.

In a free market economy, value generates worth – and some architects are, right now, evidencing the value of what they have to offer their clients in a new hybridized platform of selling specific designs with an eye towards adaptation to specific clients and sites.

Minnesota architect Dale Mulfinger is actively creating published home designs for purchase.

Cooter Ramsey from South Carolina has created his own line, “Best Houses.”

Ross Chapin not only creates designs for homes to sell, but designs entire communities for them as well.

But why are these accomplished architects, who could easily earn a living exclusively executing one-off designs for individual clients dedicating part of their practice to creating designs for public consumption? Because architects know that if they can inspire homeowners with an existing design and then maintain control of the design’s mesh with each individual site and client, they get the best of both worlds – large impact while maintaining a quality product.

The next generation of home design and construction has to change – the system of homebuilding that creates oceans of low-quality, cookie-cutter homes will not survive unless it recognizes that fast-food homes are increasingly not on the menu. The 60,000 architects who have jobs struggling as they wait for the building economy to recover, but are better off than the other 200,000 who have degrees that are not working in the profession. Neither mode – hyping tired plans that respond to nothing but the profit motive, or extreme idiosyncratic designs created for peer recognition by other architects, have fared well.

A new mode, using architects’ designs as seeds for creative evolution to specific homeowner’s needs as well as adaptation to a specific site’s characteristics may just combine the best of both failing paradigms. The stock plan is both crowd-sourced in its relevance and is mass-produced to be at an accessible price point. The custom design can reflect every client’s fantasies and every site’s best potential. The stock design embodies instant gratification – it is a known quantity.

It takes the level of luck found in the”bullet-hitting-a-bullet” metaphor for anti-missile defense systems to make any stock plan fit every family and every piece of land. In case you hadn’t noticed, families are changing: we work 24/7/365 online, we divorce and blend families, we live longer and are spry into ages unthought-of 20 years ago. Parents and children return to the nest, where once they were gone forever. Our building sites within easy commute of urban centers are more quirky in their shapes, slopes, wetness and regulations. Building codes have tripled in a generation – including wetlands, coastal, septic and aesthetic regulation – let alone the every crunching constrictions of local zoning codes. The square peg of thoughtless profit-produced designs for no site and no family cannot be pounded into the round hole of our changing society and crowded urban centers.

It is time for homebuilding and architecture to adapt or die.

Thoughtful “Seed-Plans” that incorporate a designer throughout the process might mean those house designs cost more than a “one-size-fits-all" stock plan, but a fraction of the cost and time of the one-off, unique design model that all architects will continue to practice, albeit in ever shrinking numbers.

This new paradigm – “Seed-Plan” generated custom crafting of a home’s design – requires all sides of the home creation process to trust and sacrifice in ways that have not happened before. Architects will have to surrender full control and invention, homeowners will need to value a second party’s input on a product they have already purchased.

“Seed-Plans” can be valued for value by lenders before the costs of cash and time are generated by the base design’s adaptation to owner and site. Examining and cross-referencing “Seed-Plans” knowing that your desires will be incorporated gives the homeowner confidence that the personalized and site-inspired designs will have the hand of the designer applied, versus an efficiency-focused builder or crank-it-out draftsman. “Seed-Plans” offer the best of both worlds – a known design with the potential for personalization by the designer.

This Third Way short-circuits the white-knuckled control of the design into a black-box-derived product by either builder or architect. Will the homeowner trust the architect to listen? Well, the architect’s “Seed-Plan” design was inspiring enough for the homeowner to invest in it. Will the architect trust the homeowner to value his or her expertise and insight? Well the homeowner already recognized the architect’s worth by buying the “Seed-Plan” in the first place.

These “seed-Plans” are designed for fertilization with the homeowners’ dreams and the land’s lessons. The germination of those seeds creates a life no one could have expected, but the genome of this new growing life was known and embraced before germination transformed seeds into a living design.

What is the downside? For the homeowner this process takes longer and costs more than just buying plans and building from them. For the architect it is not a blank slate and a full fee. For the builder, both the designer and the architect are empowered to re-create something that could be a predictable done-deal transaction. Everybody risks, and, I think, everybody who chooses this path - this third way, wins.

Duo Dickinson is an architect, writer and Houseplans Exclusive Designer and contributing writer. Duo’s architectural firm in Madison, CT was founded November 1st, 1987 - marking 25 years of design, writing and service to clients - for those who pay and those who cannot pay but work for the greater good. Duo graduated from Cornell in 1977 and opened his own architectural practice in 1987. Licensed in multiple states, he has built or renovated over 500 homes and worked on projects for over 40 not-for-profits in over 10 states, with budgets ranging from $5,000 to $5,000,000.

Links:

Duo Dickinson Architect Website

"Saved by Design", Duo’s blog

Duo Dinckinson on Houzz

Royal Barry Wills: Biography and Comprehensive Online Guide

07/19/2013